Johnny Goodman lost his first match. The championship match sank to embarrassing levels of gallery sportsmanship.
It's not what Omaha wanted during its first foray into championship golf with the 1941 U.S. Amateur.
At a time when the Amateur still was considered one of the four major tournaments in men's golf, the United States Golf Association accepted Field Club's invitation to host the championship. It was a way to honor Goodman, who remains the last amateur to win the U.S. Open. Goodman, who died in 1970, won the 1933 Open and the 1937 U.S. Amateur.
Field Club was considered one of the city's top two championship courses — Happy Hollow the other. The central Omaha course then played to par 72 at more than 6,700 yards — Omaha Country Club at the time was only 6,000 yards. Field Club subsequently lost part of the land it leased from the county and has been shortened to par 67.
The weeklong affair in late August, only months before the U.S. entered World War II, began with Goodman and three other Omahans — Ben Cowdery, Rodney Bliss and Matt Zadalis — making it through the 36-hole stroke-play qualifying (Bobby Jones was in the gallery on the second day) to the 64-man match-play field.
All four were eliminated on the first day of matches. Bliss and Zadalis made it to the second round. Cowdery and, yes, Goodman, did not.
Goodman double-bogeyed the second extra hole to fall to Houston's Robert Riegel, who went to the semifinals before losing.
Omaha, though, was without its emotional favorite.
“I caddied for Johnny,” said Frank Filipowicz in a 1996 interview (he died in 2010). “I thought we should have won the whole tournament. We cried all the way back to the clubhouse.
“It really was an upset. (Riegel) chipped in on holes 7 and 8 from deep collar grasses. Johnny missed a short putt to win the match on 18 and this guy rolled through a trap on the first extra hole and kept the match going.”
The survivors for the 36-hole final were the tournament favorite, 1939 champion Marvin (Bud) Ward of Spokane, Wash., and Pat Abbott, a Californian who had won the 1936 Amateur Public Links title and was runner-up in the 1938 U.S. Amateur.
It went unmentioned in World-Herald accounts prior to the final, but it was subsequently reported that Ward had made uncomplimentary remarks about Field Club — where shots were played over streets (they still are) and along the Omaha Belt Line railroad tracks — upon his arrival.
Wrote World-Herald columnist Robert Phipps: “The common belief was that (Ward) said, 'Hell, this is a cow pasture. Out where I come from, we plow up ground like this. The greens are like concrete. Next year, the USGA will have us on sand greens.' ”
Regardless of the validity of those statements, some in the gallery were convinced that Ward said every word. He had not been popular during the week.
“We all were rooting for Abbott,” said Filipowicz, who maintained that Ward cut down the course.
On the fifth hole of the wind-blown afternoon round, a shot by Abbott was headed for the deep rough when it struck a spectator and caromed to a good lie. He made birdie.
The next hole, the crowd parted to allow Ward's ball to travel to the slope beyond. But when Abbott made a similarly wild shot, the crowd stayed put and the ball hit spectators and dropped into the fringe.
A tournament marshal then kicked Abbott's ball onto the green. USGA officials saw the incident and Joe Dey, who would become the association's longtime executive director, had the ball replaced.
Phipps wrote: “Abbott was disgusted and intentionally threw away a stroke so the hole would be halved. This climaxed a feeling of hostility to Ward that had been apparent throughout the match.
“So the golf body's No. 1 brass hat, (Harold W.) Pierce, made a speech from the center of the green (it began, 'We all know what is happening here today'). He called for better sportsmanship and spoke about golf etiquette.”
The previous day, Pierce had said: “The manners of the galleries here in Omaha are perfect. They mind the marshals, stay behind the white lines and don't flock the fairways.”
The match continued without further incident. Ward won the 36-hole match 4 and 3 and went almost unnoticed. The gallery put Abbott on its shoulders and marched down the hill, across the tracks and to the clubhouse.
“Ward should never have said those things,” Filipowicz said. “Johnny wouldn't even play a practice round with him. The crowd was told they were unruly, but Ward could complain all he wanted. He made the mistake. We thought we had the finest golf course in the world.”
Only three weeks later, Ward returned to Omaha and received a much more positive reception. He presented Father Flanagan a $1,000 check from the Spokane Athletic Round Table to buy that year's equipment for the Boys Town football team and helped raise nearly $500 more for the institution in an exhibition match with Goodman at Field Club.
Ward won 1 up. And the gallery of 1,000 cheered both golfers all the way.